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The Hidden Cost of Student Leadership

Developing student leaders is a concept that makes sense to most of us in youth ministry. We realize enabling students to lead gives them ownership of the ministry and the skills they will need to make a difference in the kingdom of God. Student leadership is important to those interested in developing followers of Christ.

Because these benefits are so attractive, many youth workers jump into the student leadership movement without considering the hidden costs. As with anything in ministry, there are trade-offs. Obvious costs include time and money that have to be allocated to the student leadership program. Those are the types of things that most of us consider as we start a program like this. Let’s think for a second about some of the more hidden costs of student leadership.

Issue #1 – Loss of Control
One of these hidden costs is the feeling of a loss of control of our ministries. If we really want to let students lead, then they need to shoulder the responsibility of leadership. It’s easy to see what this will mean for the student: tension, struggle and ultimately growth as a leader. The hard part is knowing how this will affect us. We might not get our way. The students may choose to do things differently than we would. They may even fail where you would have easily been successful. Loss of control can be difficult to deal with, but it is essential we stay out of the way.

I have seen dynamic at work during our leadership development trips. While in the wilderness we put two students in charge of navigation each day. Most adults are OK with this decision when the going is easy. As long as we don’t get lost and get to camp early, then student leadership is a great idea. It gets tough for them when we have walked the wrong way for an hour or get to camp in the dark. It can be easy to think we should take over for the student leaders when they start to struggle and make mistakes, but this might be the worst thing we can do. I think times of struggle are the best opportunities for growth as these students really begin to feel the full weight of leadership. We have to be willing to relinquish control in order for our students to really experience what leadership is all about.

Issue #2 – Undefined Adult Roles
Another hidden cost is the loss of specific roles for the adults in your ministry. When students are in charge of an event, many of the traditional roles your adults fill will be taken by the students. The students will be in charge of the worship, the food, the logistics, etc.  Adults who normally handle these things will feel out of place.

I was recently at a youth group event that was being facilitated by the student leaders. The students were doing a great job running the event. It was immediately apparent, however, the adult volunteers did not know what to do with themselves. All of the roles they normally would have filled had been given to the students. They were spending their time standing around the edges and watching the action. They were out of their element. These adults needed help to redefine their ministry role.

The Solution
Counting all the costs for student leadership is essential if we want to ensure a successful student leadership program. Spend some time considering what these changes will mean to you and your volunteers. Realize that by putting students in charge, you will be giving up control in some significant ways. Be sure to only allow students to lead in areas where failure is an OK option for them. If their safety or the ultimate success of your ministry is in jeopardy, don’t allow students to lead those activities. Give them a safe leadership environment.  Prepare yourself as well. Practice and perfect your skills of leading from behind the scenes. Doing this well allows you the opportunity to speak into the lives of your student leaders.

It is also vital to prepare your adults for the shift in roles they will experience. Hold a training session with them before the student-led event to be sure they understand the why behind what you are doing. Ask them to help you define a new role for them within the student leadership program. Encourage them to coach the students but to be careful not to steal the leadership roles back. Helping your adults think through this transition will be essential in order for your student leaders to be successful.

Empowering your student leaders is a great idea that will make a huge difference in your student ministry. Be sure to think about how this change will affect you and your volunteers. Addressing these issues will set your student leadership program up for years of success.  

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My name is Doug Franklin and I serve youth workers through a ministry called LeaderTreks. I love youth ministry and the people who serve in it. I work with an incredible team creating tools and resources enabling youth workers to develop students into leaders. I want to influence youth workers to challenge students and prepare them for leadership in the kingdom of God.